Flaws in Airline Safety

On October 20th, college student Nathaniel Heatwole was formally charged with carrying a concealed weapon aboard an aircraft. Heatwole had made headlines after admittedly smuggling doggie bags of banned items onto at least two Southwest Airlines 737s, apparently in a move to expose flaws in airport security. The bags contained box cutters, modeling clay shaped to look like plastic explosives, matches, and bleach hidden in sunscreen bottles. They were brought aboard at Raleigh Durham and Baltimore/Washington International airport, and stashed in the jets’ aft lavatories.

“I wanted to let them hear the voice of dissent,” Heatwole told the campus newspaper at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where he’s a third-year student. “Just in case they were listening.”

What isn’t clear, however, is Heatwole’s greater and perhaps unintentional point. Was he exposing important weaknesses in airside security, or demonstrating the utter pointlessness of trying to keep mundane articles away from airplanes? As far as civil disobedience goes, Heatwole’s illegal act treads a line between protest and parody. US Attorney Thomas called his antics “foolish and dangerous.” How you see it depends on your level of comfort with our existing security mindset. I would say Thomas is half right.

Regulars to these pages know which half I’m talking about, and can attest to my decrying of the x-ray belt rigmarole as the single biggest waste of time since the days of the old “Did you pack your own luggage?” interrogations. At least those didn’t use up vast amounts of time and require an army of workers and equipment. And every time I feel that I’ve adequately vented my frustrations on the matter, outrage again erupts as the next nail file, Popsicle stick, or rubber nose and sunglasses is found lurking in a seat pocket.

For me it all began in those frothy days just after September 11th, when a screener in Florida ordered me to relinquish the small metal fork I used to carry in my Rollaboard, indispensable for those midnight ramen feasts in hotel rooms. A half hour later, during meal service at 35,000 feet, a flight attendant handed me a fork startlingly similar — make that identical — to the confiscated one. It was one of those flawless so-let-me-get-his-straight moments, almost comical if only the implications weren’t so far-reaching and dangerous.

Domestic airport security is tight, vigorous, and omnipresent. All things it should be, maybe, in light of threats of terror. One thing it’s not, however, is rational. It shouldn’t take a degree from Guilford College to realize that a boxcutter is no more dangerous than a shattered wine bottle, a snapped off ballpoint pen or a broken plastic tray. In all his gloating, Heatwole shows us little more than what common sense has been telling us all along: that a zero-tolerance approach is both wasteful and unenforceable.

Our preoccupation with Weapons of Mass Distraction gets back to an unyielding fixation with the September 11th template, assuming any sequel is bound to unfurl around a home-made arsenal similar to the one employed by the original 19 skyjackers. Yet almost nothing is less likely.

The true deadly weapon on September 11th wasn’t boxcutters or anything else tactile. It was surprise, plain and simple. The perpetrators’ tool of choice, had it been boxcutters, butter knives, or bare knuckles and a shod foot, was effectively irrelevant. The attacks were made possible not by breaches of airport security or the subsequent wielding of unsheathed razors, but by unseen failures of intelligence and politics. Two years later the barn door is closed, as locked and secure as the cockpit door, and the sooner we stop fighting the last proverbial war, the quicker we can concentrate on areas that could use the attention.

After Heatwole’s Easter eggs were yanked out of the bathrooms, the government response was a predictable mix of shame and resolve. “Amateur testing of our systems [does] not show us in any way our flaws,” said Deputy TSA Administrator Stephen McHale. “This does not help.” He’s right about that, although not in the way he thinks. Did Heatwole’s antics trigger a thoughtful overhaul of our security philosophy, or admission that maybe we’re doing this all wrong? No, instead they triggered stepped-up inspections of the entire US commercial air fleet. Seven thousand airplanes had to be given the once over for hidden sharps.

It’s hard to be optimistic, but is there light at the end of the tunnel? Maybe. I’ve received word that at least one major airline is negotiating with TSA to reintroduce a full array of metal cutlery in its cabins. No more jabbing at steak with plastic knives. That is, if you’re lucky enough to be in a cabin where they still serve food. Lost in there somewhere is the irony that a shiv of broken plastic is probably no less lethal than toothless wedge of stainless steel. Point being that neither is truly “dangerous” when it’s all said and done.

Until it’s all figured out, I have an idea:

Two years ago, when I’d returned to Florida after three nights of eating ramen noodles with my hands, I asked the woman down at the concourse if I could have my fork back. She told me it had been carted away by the fire department in a sealed container. That certainly had my eyebrows arching, and when I asked what the fireman might do with a bucket of metallic contraband, she shrugged. “Maybe they donate it to charity.”

One conspiracy theorist (okay, me) suggests the material is being recycled into armaments and sold to third world freedom fighters, an illegal operation soon to be exposed as the “Iron-Contra Affair.”

Sorry. But where is all this scrap metal going? If it’s not melted down and sold to an outside party, maybe TSA will soon be unveiling a fifty ton sculpture made from the rendered fruits of our sacrifice to safety. I picture a kind of Iwo Jima monument, like the US Marine Corps statue in Washington, with six uniformed TSA soldiers hoisting a giant corkscrew.

I suspect, however, it’s all being thrown away. So I propose a new program, a kind of drop-‘n-swap that will keep everybody happy. Passengers leave their pointy implements at one airport, and receive a TSA voucher to pick up a replacement of equal or lesser value at the other end. Adjacent to every metal detector, and again at baggage claim, will be peg-boards brimming with hobby knives, screwdrivers, scissors and flatware.

I don’t know. Had young Nat Heatwole sneaked aboard with a cache of explosives, a grenade, or for that matter a live octopus, I would have been impressed. There would, at that point, be cause for alarm and Heatwole would earn the brand of I’m-glad-somebody-did-it respect he’s looking for. But as it stands, his crime amounts to little more than had he run naked through the metal detector with a banana sticking from each ear. He hasn’t shown us the porousness of anything beyond our ability to think clearly and sensibly. For that there stands a reasonable chance this kid, who in his plaid shirt and frat-boy jacket looks like something less than Abbie Hoffman, will go to prison. They don’t make protests like they used to, I guess.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.